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Building a Protein Backbone

One of the things people often struggle with when beginning to eat for health, performance and body composition goals is reaching their daily protein goal.

Generally people are only consuming a small fraction of what they should be to optimize these goals on a daily basis, and it can seem daunting at first to make this transition. What foods to eat, how often, and how much are often in question.

One exercise I'll have clients do is create what I call a protein backbone. I give it this name as it is meant to act as the backbone of your diet, the base which the rest of your food intake is built around. It will act as a reference sheet to turn to when you’re out of new ideas or need to rely on a low thought, low effort, simple to execute plan.

The first step is to figure out how much protein you need if it has not been given to you. Most people tend to thrive on 0.8 to 1 gram per pound of body, per day. So a 200 pound individual would consume between 160 to 200 grams of protein every day. Those new to this may want to start on the lower end of the spectrum and slowly increase that amount as the practice becomes more second nature.

Once you've established your intake you then have to decide how often you plan to eat in a day. This step is not only important for this practice, but is also important in long term adherence and consistency as it offers an opportunity to think, reflect and plan out your meals into your day. Someone who is incredibly busy and has little downtown may eat less frequently, but larger meals, than someone who has more breaks in their work day. So choose a frequency that is realistic and based on your experience vs something you or someone else thinks is most ideal.

Most people do very well with 3 to 5 meals a day usually consisting of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack or two.

You are then going to take your goal protein intake and divide that by the number of meals you are going to have in a day. So using our 200 pound individual that's just starting out, and let’s say they plan on eating 5 times a day, we would divide 160 by 5, which equals 32 grams of protein per meal.

Now that I have this number I can begin to figure out what I want each protein source to be at each meal. A comprehensive list is outside of the scope of this article, but in general I’d suggest: meats, seafood, eggs/egg whites, dairy products like greek yogurt or cottage cheese, beans, or meat alternatives. Protein powders also go in this category and are a great supplement for those who struggle hitting their protein goal.

Let’s say our client has settled on 2 eggs and liquid egg whites for breakfast, a chicken breast at lunch, a smoothie containing whey protein for after their afternoon workout, ground beef at dinner, and a greek yogurt parfait for an evening snack.

The next step is to look up, either online or on a food tracking app, how much of each protein source is needed to reach our 32 gram goal at each meal. It's important to note you'll get different answers from different sources, but it's important to just use the same one each time as consistency over accuracy, in this case, is more important.

After a bit of research this is what we come up with:

Breakfast: 2 large eggs & 200 grams liquid egg whites

Lunch: Boneless, skinless chicken breast with a cooked weight of 100g

Snack: Protein smoothie containing 1 & ⅓ scoop of a protein powder with 24 grams per scoop of protein

Dinner: 110 grams of cooked extra lean ground beef

Evening snack: 320 grams of 0% fat, unflavoured greek yogurt

With this structure in hand the client knows that if they eat these amounts of these foods at each meal they will hit their protein goal every day. Repeatedly doing this for a minimum of 2 weeks before the next step, will help them get used to what 160 grams of protein looks and feels like. They can easily meal-prep this in advance knowing what they plan to eat.

The final step of this, after the habit of preparing and eating this much protein is ingrained, is to start swapping out sources for alternatives and variety, and to play around with adjusting meal frequency on a whim.

Following these steps will turn you into a protein eating machine!

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